Interview: Jahdan Blakkamoore

June 16, 2015

This was published in the May/June 2015 issue of Riddim. Here it is in English for the first time…

Jamaica’s national motto is “out of many, one people”. Deejay and singer Jahdan Blakkamoore is not Jamaican yet embodies a similar principle: out of one person, many. He’s a traveller through multiple cultures, a reader of numerous books, a jumper onto myriad rhythms and chanter in a variety of different voices. Guyanese born, but raised in the cultural fondue of Brooklyn, New York, Jahdan represents that eclectic African-rooted outernational consciousness heard in the work of the Fugees or Nas meets Damian Marley. His third album Order Of Distinction, co-produced with long-time compatriot Andrew “Moon” Bain, features creative input from New York, California, Florida, Jamaica, the Virgin Islands and beyond.

Today, Jahdan is speaking to Riddim from his new home in the quieter setting of Harris County outside Houston, Texas. He’s moved there with his fiancé and admits he’s slowed down since his younger days when he wanted to be on every exciting rhythm in every genre that let him spew his mind in an unending flurry of creativity. Yet by the end of our 90 minutes he is talking furiously: discharging lyrical fire, perfectly mimicking the artists that inspired him and repeatedly coming back to the same explanation why he makes music: “It was inside me and I had to get it out”.

Jahdan was born in 1980 in the Caribbean coastal South American country Guyana. He left aged 7 to join his family in New York. Due to his mother only being able to secure a visa to Canada he flew alone from there to NYC. Settling in Brooklyn he had to modify his accent (which may explain his gift for mimicry) but soon made connections in East Flatbush, the borough’s Caribbean outpost. “I met somebody from every island” he says “Trinidad, Barbados, Guyana, Jamaica. I quickly started to get into music with my Caribbean friends.”

He formed a little sound system called Artist Hifi with his companions – at a time when New York’s block parties gave expression to their community’s culture. Performing in front of crowds, writing lyrics, rapping and breakdancing were absorbed into his education. One of the older men he looked up to in the Flatbush block party scene would later blow up as Shaggy. Another was Carlton Campbell, uncle of his boyhood friend Reego Trooper, and brother of Jamaican radio and production legend Mikey Dread. The link exposed the youngster to vinyl 12s and sound-tapes from Kingston and London: “Sound systems like King Jammys, King Stur Gav, King Stereo Mars, Coxsone … artists like Tonto Irie, Charlie Chaplin, Brigadier Jerry, Admiral Bailey, Lieutenant Stitchie and Papa San.”

Jahdan credits Papa San and Brooklyn rapper Busta Rhymes as inspiring his own fastchat abilities. “It’s my verbal verbosity” he says before launching into bars from his new album “My vernacular tenacity. It is a part of us,” he laughs “We Africans we have a lot to say.”

At home, his mother played gospel while his father introduced him to reggae and calypso. The latter stimulated him to replace rhymes about “girls and things” with social commentary. “Calypso artists would talk about the community – inflation, unemployment. The songs would be nice – the rhythm really uptempo – but it was always about something real. I was compelled to speak about what I saw around me”.

Taking the name Chukki Dan (meaning Don – his birth-name is Wayne) he began to rap and write about the delinquency and criminal activities of his school mates. Decades later, on the song Faith from Order of Distinction he says “Jah know my faith is strong, but where I’m from, some of them don’t live past 21”. What stopped him from going down the same path was his parents’ strictness, “My mother wasn’t having it and my dad who had worked in the Guyana Defence Force wasn’t either”. His father, a Rikers Island corrections officer, told him “If you end up here I’m gonna deal with you like I deal with everybody else.”

The other factor was music. Trooper’s uncle Carlton encouraged Wayne, Reego and their friend Mario to pick up drums, guitar and bass rather than just selecting and chatting over records. He carried their three-piece band, BlackHearted Skavengers, to the great reggae bassist Lloyd Parks’ studio on Cortelyou Street. There Dan cut his first professional vocal, Pick From The Best. “I remember in the studio Lloydie being like “Yuh have to sing with more feeling man – yuh a write the lyrics – feel it!” I didn’t even know who Lloyd Parks was or how connected I was”.

Jahdan threw himself into 90s New York’s hip hop scene. Not knowing how to produce, he engaged in multiple projects with different beat-makers, even voicing at DJ Premier’s famous D&D studio.

“I was going where the energy was, where I could express myself freely and get it out of me. I was writing constantly. I had books and books of lyrics I didn’t have music for. I remember that driving me – more beats, more tracks, better.”

He was also growing locks, learning about his heritage from a local Rasta named Trini from Laventille. “We looked up to him in the neighbourhood. He was an electrician, mason, carpenter. He made his own clothes, his own shoes, pants and shirt. He’d reason with me in particular because he saw I started rebelling against society. I grew my locks and stopped eating meat, milk, cheese and salt”.

In a story familiar to readers of these pages, Dan’s journey to Rastafari was a problem for his parents – his mother especially. He remembers her trying to tear a picture of Haile Selassie down from his bedroom wall. “She said “So this is who you’re worshipping now? You’re praying to him?” I was like “Mom! Yuh haffi know this is our black king.”“ He laughs, adopting a high-pitched angry voice “She was like “Black king? I don’t know about no black king!”

My dad understood more. He had Rastaman Vibration, Burning Spear and Peter Tosh albums in the house. Now my mother understands what I’m about. She just didn’t want me smoking herb and getting locked up.”

Today the locks are gone but his faith remains. “I don’t have to be any particular way to know what I know. It’s about the content of your heart and actions. What you do and how you think”.

His father gave him a book called The Golden Age Of The Moors from which he took the name Blakkamoore. “I went from Chukki Dan to Jahdan because I was getting into my cultural side.” He holds the cover up for us to see. “I read this and saw that the Greeks referred to the Moors as the Blackamoors. I liked how that name rang and what it was associated with.”

By the new century Jahdan had downed drumsticks and become lead vocalist in his second group Noble Society – with Spanish guitarist producer Diego “Fuego Campo” and Delie Red X, Reego Trooper’s cousin. The collective cut two well received independent albums, Out Of Control and Take Charge, fusing global rhythms, dancehall, hip-hop and English grime. One day Fuego introduced Jahdan to another guitarist he knew through their daughters attending the same school. This was Andrew “Moon” Bain, half of reggae production house Lustre Kings. “He was like “You got to meet this brethren, he’s on some real good reggae vibes”. When I heard Lustre Kings production, it was completely live, no samples, no crossover – pure roots one drop.” The nomadic jack of trades had found a long term spar for his ideas “I was like “I need to sing on these tracks.”“

Moon and Jahdan set to work on an ambitious reggae solo record. But before it could be released Jahdan finished a concurrent project that became dubstep and UK bass influenced debut Buzzrock Warrior.

“Buzzrock Warrior came out before Babylon Nightmare because I just couldn’t sit still. I was working with Dutty Artz – Matt Shadetek and DJ Rupture. I was listening to a lot of music from London. Digging grime. Dudes like Skepta, Wiley, Kano and Roots Manuva. Still pushing forward, wanting to create all the music I can possibly create.”

Buzzrock was issued in 2009 to positive if muted reviews. Real critical acclaim came via his long-player with Moon – 2010’s sprawling modern roots masterpiece Babylon Nightmare. “All my school peers were like “You haffi be a roots singer like Jacob Miller or Bob Marley – that’s how you should sing!” That album was something that up until that point, I lived to do.”

Nightmare highlighted Jahdan’s extraordinary ability to inhabit the voices of other artists for a few syllables while maintaining his distinct sound. What first seems like a combination with Junior Kelly and Lutan Fyah (Dim View Of The World), Sizzla and Pressure (All Over The World) and Capleton (Red Hot) is all Jahdan himself. Jahdan puts this down to the need to achieve certain sounds on a budget. “I’ve heard that a lot because the school I came up in was “You haffi have a million voice”. Do you have backup singers? Can you pay someone to come in here? No. So what you’re hearing is me trying to give the song what it needs to get this stuff out of me – the lyrics and message out.”

Jahdan’s next venture brought him abruptly into the mainstream. His friend DJ Gravy introduced him to Diplo of Major Lazer, who asked Dan and Moon to be official reggae consultants on Snoop Doggy Dogg – then Snoop Lion’s – Reincarnated project.

“Gravy was telling me about Diplo trying to get me onto that techno EDM scene. At that time I didn’t know Diplo was going to be as huge as he turned out to be. He was like “You need to get on this Major Lazer project. It should help you get to a broader fanbase. I know he’s in the studio right now we should go check him.” The next thing you know Diplo’s sending me music. I recorded it with Moon in our house studio, and Diplo was like “This is what I need to make this album feel right. I need this roots.”“

Diplo used the song Cash Flow on Major Lazer’s album Guns Don’t Kill People…Lazers Do. A planned follow-up was put on hold when Diplo got the call to work with Snoop – who had changed his name to Snoop Lion and announced a Rastafari conversion. “I was like “What? Snoop? Yo I’m with it! I’m a fan! I’m a huge fan! The biggest fan ever! I can imitate Snoop! Let me get up in there.” So next thing you know we’re in Jamaica at Geejam studio – singing back and forth recording songs together.”

“I was like “Snoop I want to hear you do…Yeah, one, two, two and to the three”” he says, nailing that languid flow. “He was like “No – this is a reggae album. I want this to be real. To reflect a side of me that is not Snoop Dogg. I don’t want any of that.””

While it might have been a New York hip hop head’s dream to link with Snoop, the Reincarnated project would attract huge controversy. Snoop’s public fall out with the irascible Bunny Wailer and expedient switching of Dogg and Lion personas caused reggae fans to question his commitment to Rastafari. Jahdan admits he faced private criticism over his involvement but is supportive of his friend.

“I just looked on like “Wow it’s amazing how the general public is when you’re famous – the kinds of thing you have to deal with”. I saw things in a different way – as it applies to this man’s integrity, who I respect to this day. I love what he did – despite what I was hearing from my peers, who are very militant. I had to remove myself in order to stay focussed because this is not what it seems.”

General public aside, can he see why some Rasta people were upset by Snoop’s perceived lack of sincerity? Dan choses his words slowly and carefully.

“It definitely rubbed a lot of Jamaican Rasta the wrong way but that’s just a lot of the political mess going on with Jamaica outside of entertainment. There’s a lot going on with Jamaican society that’s not put out there in the media so heavily.

Snoop went there and made a big contribution to a huge population out in Tivoli which a lot of people don’t even know about because he doesn’t even say it. He contributed a lot to farmers and people who are still trying to stay in the game as far as import export laws and regulations and what is going on with the IMF and stuff. So I look at it from a different perspective.

The response from Bunny Wailer I totally get it. I understand how there can be that conflict but Snoop doesn’t come out and say what he does behind the scenes – the charity works and good things he has done for the country. It’s perceived by Rastas as he’s going in and taking the culture. But it’s not – he’s just heavily influenced by Bob Marley and all these people too and this is his way of expressing himself as an artist.”

The Snoop record sold well in an otherwise dismal reggae climate and added a Grammy nomination to Jahdan’s CV. However, it also contributed to a 5 year gap between Blakkamoore solo albums. The audible tension stemming from Jahdan’s sincere love of working with Snoop and his own Rastafari culture is now replaced by the tension between the need to create art and the need to keep earning.

“I was trying to figure things out. I had to create a gap so I could drop something with a little more intensity. I’m independent so I have to stay working to stay relevant, but I don’t want to do too much. Lots of European producers want to work with me and so I do a lot of those songs. If I could have helped not doing that I really would have – to create a gap where I could say “The new album! Finally.””

Order of Distinction’s title comes from the idea of “everyone bringing his best”. It boasts production by Dan and Moon’s own Paper Stars company, Zion I Kings (Moon, Jah David of Florida’s Zion High Productions and Tippy from St Croix’s I Grade) and New York’s Dre Skull, who Jahdan met on the Snoop sessions. Vocally he collaborates with Kabaka Pyramid and two artists whose voices he channelled on Babylon Nightmare, Lutan Fyah and Pressure.

“We just had to hook up. I’m glad artists I feel are cutting edge also feel that way about myself and don’t feel like I’m out there just to pollute this thing but to really bring something. And when you hear these artists alongside me you hear the difference between Pressure and myself. You hear Kabaka’s voice is different from mine. We are just soldiers in the same army. I feel once people get a load of this album they’re going to realise “I gotta consistently check for this dude – this cat is making some good frigging music here” That’s what I want,” he says as if something intangible is within his grasp “We’re getting at that.”

But he hasn’t stopped referencing his favourites. Dancehall track Ting Tun Up features vocals that sound a little like Bounty Killa. Has he summoned Bounty for a future combination as he did Pressure and Lutan? He cracks up at this.

“I would love to because” – suddenly Bounty is in the room – “Yo! Cross! Angry! Miserable! Bounty is my dude. The people’s prophet. Grung Gad. Gully Gad. This man has been inspirational in my career definitely. I’ve listened to the greats. In dancehall music you have what you call father and son vibes. You have the one that set the pace and the one that came up and patterned themselves after him. Reggae is a music of sharing. It involves a little bit of everything. That’s why it’s a compliment to hear “Yo, you sound a bit like Bounty” Word. I can’t even help it. I am inspired by the best.”

Order of Distinction was assembled from recent singles with Zion I Kings and others. Bar a few dubstep wobble noises it’s indebted to reggae and dancehall. Yet fans of Jahdan’s more eclectic side that yielded Buzzrock Warrior won’t have to wait long. A sequel, Upward Spiral is coming.

“We have Order Of Distinction, then Upward Spiral and a third album too that’s waiting. Order of Distinction was like “Yo just take all these singles and let’s put an album out dude. Let’s not lose people with this EDM Upward Spiral dubstep electronic thing just yet. Let’s hit them with this – all your peers out of Jamaica, they’re bringing this revival.” Jahdan Blakkamoore never had to come with a revival because I’ve been conscious the whole time.”

And there are future works with Snoop in the pipeline. “He’s going to be on my next solo album and we’re looking forward to the world hearing that. This is not his project, this is him featuring on our Paper Stars project. After that whole controversy we just kept recording. Paper Stars left that Reincarnated project really on a high voltage and we kept going”.

Paper Stars has finally let Jahdan engage his long held ambition to produce as well as record.

“Paper Stars is the focus – because now I want to explore my production. I want to write music – not just lyrics and me, me, me all the time. I want to get into what Paper Stars can do which is produce and develop artists. This mad Guyanese is here to show what Guyana has produced to contribute to this musical art called reggae music.”

This sparks one last question. Would he collaborate with Guyanese reggae legend Mad Professor?

“Mad Professor is my dupes. I met him a few times.” He pauses “Yo! That might be a good one right there! Two Guyanese, recognised – I would definitely do that.”